Manihi… Black Pearls like the little black dress, is an essential accessory

Finding the perfect black pearl

It’s unclear how the French Polynesian Islands in the South Pacific came to be populated. However since there were sailors who traversed the ocean blue, many from South Asia, it’s not difficult to see why, when they saw this extraordinary destination, they settled. Records show that between 3000-4000 AD, there were settlements and by 300 AD it was definite that there were many people on the islands. Firstly they were ruled by a Chieftain and that included human sacrifices, the marae (temples) and sacrificial areas, still visited and visible in the archeological sites on many of the groups of island. There are five, Gambier, Tuamotu, Society, Marquesas and. Early European visitors included Louis Antoinne de Bougainville in 1768, James Cook in 1769 and when they returned to their homes told great stories about this newly discovered paradise. Of course, there was also the fact that the tawny skinned Venus like women who were considered sexually free by European standards, were being ‘friendly’ and didn’t consider this free love. But the dye was cast and soon more Europeans were traveling and also bringing new disease to this no natural immunity people. The island’s population plummeted. Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson and Paul Gauguin were later visitors who came for prolonged visits.

The last time I was in Manihi, an island in the Taumotu Archipelago in the South Pacific, 520 kilometres northeast of Tahiti, I learned that some of the rarest pearls on earth are found here: black pearls

I also met again Paris born Cathy Schneider who has lived on this volcanic atoll for over 20 years. Cathy knows a lot about mollusks and gives lectures and tours about and to the pearl farm. She also oversees the pearl boutique at the five star Manihi Pearl Beach Resort that has one of the most beautiful locations in the world with stunning over- the- ocean cabins.

The waters in the Taumotus are the only place where black pearls can be cultivated since they remain free of pollution, rich in plankton and there’s little water temperature fluctuations. Since the black pearl industry is growing and is second only to tourism in importance in French Polynesia, the government takes great care that the environment is controlled so as not to disturb the fragile balance of nature.

It’s a 10 minute hi speed boat trip to Takovea, the pearl farm. Our boat stops at the dock in the lagoon and we cross over a narrow plank to a small group of buildings sitting on stilts. This is the Compagnie Perliere des Tuamotu launched in 1968 and one of the largest of literally hundreds of pearl farms. However, it’s nowhere as luxurious as one would expect since these are such highly valued and very pricey gems.

Pearl Farm

Although there are about 70 species of oysters that will make pearls, only three types produce the rarest and they are the white South Sea pearls near Australia, the small white akoya pearl found in Japanese, Chinese and Korean waters and the black pearl in this part of the world. The black lipped oyster, Pinctada Margaritifera, produces pearls which range in colour from grayish white and aubergine to magenta, bronze, green and deep black. The darker, the more expensive.

Here at the farm, there are 10 kilometres of ropes sunk into the waters and at any time about 60,000 to 80,000 oysters are attached. It will be more than three years before they can be harvested.

“Maintenance takes up 60% of the time,” Schneider tells me. “If it’s not done properly, the shell will not grow.”

She stands in front of large diagrams which show the organs of the oyster, the gonad being most important. Then she holds up a ‘collector’ which looks very much like black steel wool but softer and more pliable. Baby oysters, or spats, which haven’t been eaten by predators, are gathered in the collector. They are then fertilized in one or two stations in the lagoon.

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The young oysters spend up to a year in the collectors before they are transferred to rearing baskets. Then over the next year, they are regularly checked and moved to bigger nets as they grow. When they are strong and healthy, at about age two, a technician delicately pries open the mollusk, makes an incision in the gonad, selects a spherical bead and implants that and nacre-secreting mantle tissue from a sacrificed oyster. I watch as this is demonstrated by one of the company’s top grafters who can do about 300 shells a day.

The beads vary in size and are from mussels imported from the Mississippi and Tennessee river valleys. Irritated by the bead, the tissue secrets a substance called nacre, which builds up around the nucleus and forms a pearl.

The process continues. Every two or three months the ropes of the oysters are taken out of the water, cleansed and scraped of parasites and other marine life. If all the elements are in sync, the oyster can create three to four layers of nacre a day. In three years the pearl is removed gently by a technician and while we watched, he carefully removed one stunning peacock coloured pearl which was handed to me to feel and touch. An incredible experience. Only half the grafts result in pearls since some die or reject the implants. Others produce blemished, imperfect pearls which have, in fact, become quite stylish but less costly then the perfectly round pearls. Prices are high since only 10 out of every 2,000 will produce an “A” quality pearl.

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Before 1978 few people knew about Tahitian black pearls. And few knew that if the dark pearl came from the South Sea, they had been treated since only the Pinctada Margaritifera oysters produce these. Now there’s a greater awareness of black pearls among jewelry collectors.

Pearl on the half shell

Like other gemstones, there are several important features to look for when purchasing black pearls.

Colour should include the base colour of black or gray with hints that range from peacock green and eggplant to blue, pink and gold.

Size counts. Black pearls seldomly are as large as the South Sea peals and range from 8mm to the occasional and very costly 21mm.

Lustre depends on the quality of the layers of nacre. Light reflecting from the surface gives a pearl its shine and brilliance

Shape goes from perfectly round, semi round, ringed, baroque and button.

Purity. The most perfect pearl has no pits, scratches or stains on the surface. But these are very rare so slight depressions are considered “natural perfections”.